The 2024 Stella Prize for Australian literature shortlist

12 April 2024

And talking of Australian fiction, the shortlist for the 2024 Stella Prize, the Australian literary award that recognises the work of Australian women and non-binary writers, was unveiled last week. The following six titles were selected:

I’m a big fan of literary prize lists, be they long or short, given they’re always a great source of reading ideas, since I only sometimes have my finger on the pulse of literary happenings. In the same way Triple J’s Hottest 100 is great for new music discovery, for those unable to listen to music 24/7.

Good to see Melbourne based author Katherine Brabon listed with her latest novel. I really enjoyed her 2021 novel, The Shut-ins. I highly recommend adding it your TBR list, if you’ve not yet read it.

And for reference, here is the Stella’s longlist, which was published in early March. The 2024 winner of the Stella Prize will be named on Thursday 2 May 2024.

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No one can interpret your dreams except you

12 April 2024

I sometimes write about books, novels, here. Usually Australian fiction, which I make a point to read as much of as possible. I’m currently (still) reading Before You Knew my Name, the 2021 debut of Melbourne based New Zealand author Jacqueline Bublitz. I guess therefore that’s close (in my book, if you’ll excuse the pitiful pun) to being an Australian title.

Perhaps though some people think this makes me worth approaching to write about other sorts of books, non-fiction even. Perhaps that’s why I was recently asked if I would read, and offer some thoughts here, about a recently completed book.

But I declined. It’s not because the title was self-published. As an online self-publisher, I have no problems with initiative based publishing. I’ve long been considering self-publishing a book, a novel myself, if I can ever finish writing it.

What bothered me was the subject matter: dream interpretation. Or, more succinctly, the regarding of objects, happenings, and other things that occur in dreams, as being symbols of some sort, that can be said to have a standard, or universal, meaning. For instance, two thousand people see a blackbird in a dream, and seemingly it means the same thing to each and every one of them.

Yeah, right.

Our dreams are our subconscious brain processing our individual thoughts, problems, concerns, hopes, you name it. How anyone else, another individual whom we’ve never met, is meant to know the significance of these visions we have — assuming we remember them — is beyond me.

As such, I have no interest in endorsing any books on the subject. The world does not need (and here’s hoping the author in question is not reading this) another pseudoscience title clogging the shelves at bookshops.

I have some wild crazy dreams sometimes. If my recollection of them is clear enough on waking, I try and jot down as much detail as possible, and self-analyse what I saw later on. Sometimes discerning a meaning is not hard, once going through the feelings, emotions, events, and of course, the people present, in the dream.

Often though, I’m just left with an intriguing notion to mull for a time, until something in the here and now distracts me.

I wrote back to the author, and told them their type of dream interpretation was not my thing, and wished them all the best with their work. By the way, I’m pretty sure I spotted a blackbird or two in a recent dream, but did not later end up buying a bunch of bananas, or whatever the sight of a blackbird in a dream is purported to mean.

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Third best coffee on Earth? Sydney. Tenth best? Melbourne…

11 April 2024

Expresso coffee at Crepe & Coffee Co, Redfern, Sydney. Photo by John Lampard.

Espresso, brewed by Crepe & Coffee Co, photo by John Lampard.

Sydney has been adjudged the third best city in the world for coffee, this according to American magazine, Food & Wine. Copenhagen, perhaps unsurprisingly, comes in at number one, followed by Tokyo in second place. But here’s where things may get contentious: Melbourne — perhaps surprisingly — ranks at number ten on the list.

Number ten? How can that be? Did not Melbourne birth McCafe, the McDonald’s hamburger restaurant coffee-shop off-shoot? Isn’t Melbourne where the rest of Australia supposedly draws all ideas and inspiration coffee related from? Not that I’m trying to stoke up any Melbourne versus Sydney antagonism, or rivalry, here.

Not me. After all, I’m officially based almost two-hours drive north of Sydney. But when it comes to coffee consumption elsewhere, I’ve had more Sydney coffee than I have Melbourne. And besides, I like both cities. But they’re different places, they’re not cookie-cutter replicas of each other.

Objectively, how then could one possibly be better than the other? Let me illustrate, while keeping the theme victual. Years ago, a chef (whose name escapes me), described the differences between the two cities, thusly. When you go out for dinner in Sydney, it’s for a quick bite, because you’re on the way somewhere else.

That’s true. Sydney never stands still.

On the other hand, when you go out for dinner in Melbourne, it’s an occasion. People dress up, and stay seated at the table for hours. And sometimes we like doing both. But let’s avoid any further Melbourne versus Sydney discord, and take solace in the fact Australia is a country that embraces independent coffee brewers, and has little time for multinational coffeehouse chains.

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A tribute to Kurt Cobain by his daughter Frances Bean Cobain

10 April 2024

Thirty-years ago, last Friday, 5 April, Kurt Cobain, American musician, and founder of grunge act Nirvana, died.

It was one of those remember-where-you-were-when-the-news-broke moments. I was sitting on the carpeted stairs of friend’s house, as we listened to a radio report about the tragedy. We could’ve sat in the lounge room, or around the kitchen table, but somehow not being in the same room as the radio, not being in its line of sight, made the news, I don’t know, easier to process.

Or maybe we felt the need to give the clearly upset DJ, who was discussing what happened, space.

To mark the thirtieth anniversary of Cobain’s death, his daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, who was twenty-months old at the time, published a tribute to her late father on her Instagram page. These are beautiful words, particularly, I thought, this excerpt:

In the last 30 years my ideas around loss have been in a continuous state of metamorphosing. The biggest lesson learned through grieving for almost as long as I’ve been conscious, is that it serves a purpose. The duality of life & death, pain & joy, yin & yang, need to exist along side each other or none of this would have any meaning.

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The Internet is not written in pencil, nor is it written in stone

9 April 2024

An excerpt from Manuel Moreale’s recent interview — from his excellent People and Blogs series — with Oregon based American web designer and writer, Matt Stein.

I rewrite and edit heavily to try and find what I want to say. I wrote obscenely long answers to these questions and had to start over, and I’m one of those serial Discord+Slack edit-after-sending people. I would go broke as a stone engraver.

There could be no better way to describe my writing process. I’d likely go broke simply writing on paper, given the quantity I’d waste, attempting to publish a single post.

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Independent publishers jeopardised by Google search changes

8 April 2024

Google seems to have it in for small, and or independent publications and blogs… Google: whatever did we do to you?

Changes last month — known as core updates, which occur regularly — to the way the search giant indexes and ranks websites on search results, have seen scads of sites excluded from the listings. Google claimed one goal of recent core updates was to remove “low quality websites” from the rankings. This may have happened, but they’ve also taken out numerous sites publishing high quality content, in the process.

But some publishers found themselves out in the cold about six months ago, following the September 2023 core update. Retro Dodo, a UK based website that tests and reviews retro gaming products, has seen a sharp decline in traffic since then, something that threatens to wipe out the publication, according to Retro Dodo founder, Brandon Saltalamacchia:

Since September 2023, Google has hidden our site from millions of retro gamers, reducing our organic traffic and revenue by 85% and causing our business to be on the edge of going under.

Retro Dodo is not alone. HouseFresh, also based in Britain, is a publication assessing and writing about in-home air purifying products, has had the same experience. But that’s not all. HouseFresh has discovered that search results for the products they write about have been supplanted by lists compiled by other publishers, apparently based on recommendations supplied by people who have purchased the products in question.

There’s nothing wrong with user recommendations — many of us rely on them when considering a purchase — but the recommendations appearing in the search results suggest these products have been individually tested and reviewed by the publisher, when in fact they have not:

Savvy SEOs at big media publishers (or third-party vendors hired by them) realized that they could create pages for ‘best of’ product recommendations without the need to invest any time or effort in actually testing and reviewing the products first. So, they peppered their pages with references to a ‘rigorous testing process,’ their ‘lab team,’ subject matter experts ‘they collaborated with,’ and complicated methodologies that seem impressive at a cursory look.

This doesn’t look to me like low quality content has been removed from search results. And it’s only going to get worse. News broke recently of a deal between Google and news aggregation social network, Reddit, which will see Google granted access to Reddit’s content. This, we are told, will assist the search engine in the “training” of its AI models.

As if there’s not enough fluff in search results, it’s now going to be polluted with AI produced copy. Reddit is great when it comes to seeking out anecdotal information, or the opinions of others in regards to particular goods or services. Or to find out why the sirens of emergency service vehicles might be blaring in the neighbourhood. But as the basis of solid information for potential search query results? I’m not so sure.

There’s also the point that the Reddit members who wrote much of the content that’s being handed over to Google, will not see any recompense for their efforts. Unless perhaps they are, or will soon be, Reddit shareholders.

So what’s the way forward then for people simply seeking accurate information in response to a search engine query? There are of course alternatives, subscription search service Kagi being among them, but it seems to me many will stay with what they know.

And what’s the way forward for the small independent publishers, whose livelihoods have been impacted, by these recent changes? That’s not so clear at the moment. They might see some traffic from other search engines, and other channels, but hardly enough to keep their operations viable. One can only hope the big search players come to their senses, but that sadly seems like a big ask.

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Pre-production expenses: cost accounting for sex and drugs

6 April 2024

In this case, pre-production expenses would appear to relate to the costs associated with procuring illicit drugs, and the services of sex workers.

The term came to light during proceedings in the Australian Federal Court last week, in the course of a defamation case between a former federal parliamentary staffer, and an Australian TV broadcaster.

With “pre-production expenses”, have we witnessed the coining of a new euphemism? One that means to ask someone else to reimburse the costs another person incurred while obtaining sex and drugs? I’m not sure it’s entirely new, however. It could be accounting departments have been using the phrase to classify certain expenses for some time.

Still, as a possibly somewhat new euphemism, pre-production expenses can take its place in the vernacular along with the likes of assorted other terms, including “friends with benefits”, “pre-loved”, “wardrobe malfunction”, “between jobs”, and of course, “cook the books”.

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Is the Sun conscious? Can a great ball of fire think for itself?

5 April 2024

Maybe I’ve been watching too much of Universe, the Brian Cox made documentary about, well, the universe, and am way too willing to take in all manner of ideas, no matter how outlandish they may seem. So when this article (PDF), exploring the possibility the Sun is a conscious entity (of some sort), written in 2020 by Rupert Sheldrake, appeared on my news feed recently, my curiosity was piqued.

Meanwhile, field theories of consciousness propose that some electromagnetic fields actually are conscious, and that these fields are by their very nature integrative. When applied to the sun, such field theories suggest a possible physical basis for the solar mind, both within the body of the sun itself and also throughout the solar system. If the sun is conscious, it may be concerned with the regulation of its own body and the entire solar system through its electromagnetic activity, including solar flares and coronal mass ejections. It may also communicate with other star systems within the galaxy.

If the Sun could talk, what might it say to us? Maybe, “do something about climate change before it’s too late.” Or, “always wear sunscreen when in my presence.”

It’s a fun idea, solar consciousness, but I’m not sure we’d ever hear Brian Cox going along with the notion. I’ll defer to Star Trekin’! in the meantime: it’s consciousness; but not as we know it…

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Only one in five Australian musicians earn a full time income

4 April 2024

The latest Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) survey of the pay and work conditions of Australian musicians makes for grim reading. In particular, the stand-out finding that half of local musos earned less than six thousand dollars last year.

Six thousand dollars.

The adult minimum annual wage in Australia, based on earnings of $882 per week, and assuming payment covers fifty-two weeks of the year, is a shade under forty-six thousand Australian dollars. Only twenty percent of musicians said they made a full time income from their work.

Many musicians needed to work several jobs, often perform at shows unpaid, and seldom receive superannuation payments. In 2022, the NSW Labor party promised to pass laws ensuring musicians performing at publicly funded events, receive a minimum payment of two-hundred-and-fifty dollars.

At least it’s a start, but I think the findings of the MEAA survey make it glaringly obvious: more support is needed for the performing arts in Australia.

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Workers using cafes as offices may reduce their profitability

3 April 2024

Malcolm Knox, writing for The Sydney Morning Herald:

Then there are rents, insurance, equipment and other fixed costs. In a Sydney suburb near me, a new cafe is paying $5000 a week in rent. At $1000 per 7am-to-1pm shift, they need to be selling 300 coffees a day to make it worth their while. That’s nearly one a minute. They don’t often make money on food, which requires more infrastructure such as cooking, storing, plates and so on. It’s all down to their coffee price.

Cafes are a great stand-by for the WFH crowd, an office away from the home office. They’re somewhere to work, be in the company of others, while enjoying a coffee. Or two. Or three. In fact, the more the merrier, so far as the cafe is concerned.

But as much as I love the idea of working in a cafe, I do so infrequently. And then in short bursts — an hour tops — and I will buy at least one coffee and a cake — valued at maybe a little more than ten dollars — to make my stay at least partially worthwhile for the cafe. But even then, I’m short-changing the owners, as they’re hoping to earn closer to forty dollars an hour on the table I occupy.

Running a cafe you see, is an expensive undertaking, and WFH workers who buy a single cup of coffee, and expect to have the same table to themselves all day, are doing the cafe a distinct disservice. I’m fortunate to have a couple of hot-desk options if I don’t want to work at home, virtually negating the need to use a cafe, something I’m sure owners are grateful for. Instead, I’ll come by for a take-out coffee, and be on my way.

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